Stephen Sexton’s much-anticipated debut – and recent winner of the 2019 Forward Prize for the Best First Collection – is a remarkable requiem for the poet’s mother and for the worlds of childhood imagination. At times comic, at times solemn, each poem leads us through a level of Super Mario World, the Nintendo game with which Sexton spent much of his younger years. The fantastical terrain of the game overlaps, often imperceptibly, with those of his childhood family home, the surrounding countryside, and the hospital, as the speaker’s mother becomes increasingly ill. This is a world with the flatness of a dream, and the impressionistic, sensory richness of a memory. Although the game situates us unmistakably in the 1990s, the book’s title name-checks the much older tradition of the pastoral: ‘If all the world and love were young’ echoes the opening line from Walter Raleigh’s ‘The Nymph’s Reply To The Shepherd’ a response to Christopher Marlowe’s ‘The Passionate Shepherd To His Love’ both written in the late 15th century. The 2D landscape of a television screen may seem a surprising subject for such a classical lens, but the pastoral has always involved – or rather, constructed – an unreal and imaginary space whose link to ‘real’ places is tangential at best. They may have been inspired by a certain object, or written in a certain place, but the poems are made of words, not soil.
This is arguably true of all poetry, but in the pastoral mode the gap between the poem and the material world it ostensibly describes is particularly wide: the pastoral is built from the vocabulary and imagery of rustic life, but it is separated from this reality by the rendering into art. In Marlowe’s poem the Shepherd, woos his Love by promising her ‘a bed of Roses’ and a ‘gown made of the finest wool / Which from our pretty Lambs we pull’—describing a scene so idyllic and childlike that it seems extraneous to mention the labour of sheep-farming, or how unpleasant it might be to sleep on roses. The speaker in Raleigh’s poem scolds the Shepherd for his Edenic vision, but not because of its detachment from reality: instead because it is lamentably ephemeral, doomed by the inevitable effacement of time.
If all the world and love were young,
And truth in every shepherds tongue,
These pretty pleasures might me move,
To live with thee and be my love.
Sexton has said that the book contains both of these perspectives: the ecstatic perfection of Marlowe; the lamented bliss of Raleigh. The poems grow in the space left behind after this idyll has disappeared, simultaneously springing from its absence and reaching towards it. If there were no gap between the poet and the absent other, there would be no poem working to close it, no need for words at all. Such is the painful transaction that underpins the landscape of the poems:
an economy of losses
and gains the beloved is gone but there is always the story.
This anxiety is common in modern elegies, which often contain a sense of guilt about profiting, via the production of the poem, from the loved one’s death. Memories of a life and death are mined for material (to use one of this book’s prevailing metaphors) which is then worked into an aesthetic object, simultaneously elevating and estranging that which it memorializes but never quite repaying the debt. In this book, the sense of unequal exchange plays out again and again in the underground passages and caverns of Mario’s rescue mission as well as in mentions of industrial exploitation of nature. ‘The Big Hole was excavated,’ we are told, ‘when there was something to want.’
One of the book’s early poems, ‘Top Secret Area’, which starts with the line:
I have been trying to tell you the secret of infinite lives
‘Infinite lives’, a gaming cheat that makes Mario effectively immortal, suggests both the timeless space of Marlowe’s idyll and the transcendence of the limits of one’s finite individuality in order to commune totally with the absent other. This ‘secret’ is not shown to be accessible within the limits of a (language) game, however. The rest of the poem follows the same visual pattern, with the words ‘she plants roses in the garden’ repeating in a column down one side of the white space, and sonically resonant sentences filling the side.
she plants roses in the garden she pliant flows in the journal
she plants roses in the garden sea plants wrasses in the ocean
she plants roses in the garden she paths road signs from the station
she plants roses in the garden sea plans ruses in the argot
she plants roses in the garden seaplanes rising from the water
The invocation of the pastoral scene in the left-hand column seems more like a desperate chant as we move down the page. The repeated phrase loses meaning, becoming flat and formulaic like an avatar going through a level in a videogame again and again. Instead of leading us any closer to a place of wholeness, instead of closing the gap between the poem and the absent loved one, they just produce more words, ‘ruses in the argot’, never narrowing the chasm of white space that runs down the middle of the page. Later this desperation reappears in the speaker’s vain, melancholic attempt to bring back the person by repeating her first word, with all its Edenic undertones: ‘apple apple apple apple apple’. The nuanced interrogation of the pastoral poet’s traditional detachment from, and mastery over, the natural world is a kind of photographic negative of Andrew Marvell’s ‘The Garden,’ mentioned two pages earlier, which describes the mind of the poet as
that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find,
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas
I want to say, too, that it is an acknowledgement of the problematic position of the ‘artful voyeur’ of Seamus Heaney’s North, a collection that has made its way into the ecosystem of the text (there is even a mummified body, although this one has been preserved not in peat but ice). North epitomizes Heaney’s vision of a romanticized landscape that is mother, lover and devouring Goddess; an undetermined, nourishing mass to be ploughed or excavated by the detached, masculine poet. Indeed, the ‘seaplanes rising from the water’ bring to mind ‘Ocean’s Love To Ireland,’ one of the grisliest poems in the collection, in which a description of the rape of a ‘maid’ by Sir Walter Raleigh—the very same—stands in for the colonial exploitation of the land, Raleigh likened to ‘a wave’ which ‘drives inland / Till all her strands are breathless’.
But highlighting an oppressive formula is not always enough to circumvent its logic, and the collection is sometimes symptomatic of the gendered divisions it diagnoses. Take the repetition of ‘apple apple apple apple apple’ mentioned above. Coming at the very end of Part One, the word ushers in a Fall from innocence and casts the mother as Eve . Indeed, the association of the mother with the hazy, malleable space of childhood—the ‘days of no letters’ of the opening poem—sometimes feels reminiscent of the ‘illiterate roots’ of Heaney’s ‘Bog Queen’. From ‘Yoshi’s Island 4’ in the opening section:
the likeness of a giant swan
almost maneuverable about the tropical island
silly with plastic palms and shale from whose hollow we called
to our mother on the seafront between the artificial pool
and the sunstruck coastal waters who beckons us back
Since it’s August she begins the idle effacement of dying
The association of mother and landscape can be poignantly ironic, such as in the last line quoted above, but the equivalence of ‘land’ and ‘our mother’ seems less so. As the book goes on, the landscape and the mother’s body are more and more intertwined, in a way that is often tragic, often beautiful and sometimes frustrating. In sequence set in a landscape that is at once the body of a surgical patient, a hospital, a mine shaft, and a videogame, the trauma of the mother’s surgery takes place in parallel with child’s trauma of separation:
In the castle is the surgeon lean and elegant as a fork.
This is how it’s done precisely he says sharpening his finger
to a point so fine it’s finer than any sparkle in his eye.
As well as evoking the idiom about a child being ‘a twinkle in their father’s eye’ before conception, this sparkle reflects off the diamonds in the mining excavation of the next poem:
the personable surgeon goes under the skin precisely.
I go down into the dark mines where my name clings like
and deeper until the stream of my blood runs as black as the coal.
In Kimberley diamonds have grown into the walls for thousands
beautiful time goes by slowly the surgeon covers his tracks
The mother’s surgery becomes a version of the Lacanian ‘cut’ from the object, through which the subject enters into the symbolic realm and understands itself as a separate entity. These resonances (the castle, the blood, the name clinging to the mineshaft) bring to mind the excavation of the ‘hieroglyphic peat’ in Heaney’s ‘Kinship’, a ‘mother ground’ that is ‘sour with the blood / of her faithful […] as the legions / stare from the ramparts.’ Just as in Heaney’s poem, here the female is consigned to the mortal cycles of nature, the separation from which is harrowing, traumatic, and necessary for the emergence of the mature poet.
If I’m being overly exacting here, it’s because I believe this book is worth the trouble. It’s a beautiful, vital, generous work of art. I’m grateful to have read it, and happy that it exists. And yet I can’t help wanting something more from it, wishing it had done more to interrogate these gendered models of production and inspiration: so that the female wasn’t so closely aligned with the mortal, the natural, the material; so that, for example, when the speaker remembers watching soon-to-be parents rushing to the labour ward, the description of ‘women and fatherly men who will turn into fathers’ didn’t strike such a strange chord. The ‘credits’ at the end of the book presents a cast, in order of appearance, of the people, places, events, feelings that make up the fabric of the previous text. It is a surreal, soporific catalogue that acts as a playful index and coda for the preceding sequences, listing things like ‘Memory, the Atlantic Ocean, becoming lost, secateurs, haircuts, mistaken identity’. It’s a gesture of attention and gratitude, in keeping with the poems’ reverent attention to the singular, ordinary detail, and to the web of words and things that make up the fabric of the poems. Pity, then, that out of the 35 artists, writers and musicians in the line-up, the two women are linked quite explicitly to death. Anne Sexton appears on account of a poem in which the speaker imagines her own death—‘this is how / I want to die’—while contemplating a Van Gogh painting. There are, admittedly, other echoes of her work in the collection—most notably when the ‘bright stones’ from ‘The Division of Parts’, an elegy to her mother, turn up in the yard of ‘Blue Switch Palace’—but they don’t make this list. The punk singer Wendy O Williams is also cited, but this doesn’t feel like much of a victory when we consider how she appeared earlier in the book: ‘some Wendy sings her final songs in a voice low as a whisper’. Thus the creative output of Williams is linked with her death by suicide in 1998. This is not insignificant in a text in which the only other female figures are a woman who comes to cut the children’s hair before the mother’s funeral—her scissors echoing the cut of the surgery—and an elderly relative whose funeral occurs halfway through the book.
There is, of course, one significant example of female creativity that gets outside this: the photograph taken by the speaker’s mother of the young boy playing the Nintendo, his back to the camera. This image is the starting point for the collection, and towards the end ‘Gnarly’, one of my favourite poems, presents the whole project as an oblique ekphrasis:
I want my monument to be composed of light as you might say
so you can see it friend not things themselves but the seeing of them
the light stopping on them tree I adore you I adore you world.
In some ways the collection is an attempt to get back to the photograph, to get inside it somehow. This is the impulse in some of the most touching, candid expressions of grief, as in the Lacanian image of Ötzi the Iceman reaching out of the earth ‘as if to say I’m here it was lonely / I have longed for how it feels to be seen by someone else’s eye’. Linked to this loneliness in painfully complicated ways is a need to get inside the mother’s head, to imagine her thoughts in order to bring her back:
I’m sorry she wanted to say my body won’t cooperate
my body’s become overcome though she did not say anything
but stared as if to recall how my face looked when she first saw me.
Here, in the context of her already objectified body, made strange and untrustworthy by illness, the mother’s fabulated thoughts are imagined to be about her son. In a move that is simultaneously heart-breaking and problematic, it turns her into a ventriloquized version of herself, the perspective of the photograph absorbed by perspective of the poem.
A subtle shift occurs in the final section, ‘Special World’, which turns its attention from the past, and forward to the present moment of our reading the pages. Here the closed-circuit economy of earlier poems opens out in new directions to ask openly for companionship, acknowledging the readers as witnesses and participants in the work of mourning (The appeal to ‘sit here alongside’ springs to mind from the totally different context of Claudia Rankine’s elegy for black life.) It is in the startling, humbling addresses to the ‘super reader’ that release us from the constraints of the game, not back to the lost idyll but outwards to the new contexts in which the words will be read.
Dear friends I cannot rescue you anymore than I can place her
shoulders in the way of the wind but when you’re walking in
when the time comes there’s room for you in this voice because
It’s your voice
With this new direction comes a sense of regeneration, the mother’s shoulders morphing into the shoulders of the reader a few pages later: ‘And if you find some day dear friend my sad head upon your shoulders / go out into the world.’ This is in some ways eerily comforting: it implies that the grief that the poem works through will do some good for someone, somewhere; that the anxious elegiac debt can be paid forward, a cycle will continue. Still, though, it’s hard to shake the impression of a passive, feminized material that is (poignantly, irrevocably) separate from the poet, and must be wrought into art in order for this regeneration to take place. ‘Words do not contain their echoes,’ we were told in one of the early poems, but that’s just it: they do. Even in the expansive tenderness of the final pages, these words bear echoes of the gendered modes they inherit.
 Although the collection has been described as ‘fit to compare with Seamus Heaney’, and Sexton as ‘lifting up the torch’ of Heaney’s legacy, it’s hard to tell whether this is meant as a comparison of style or quality. This is no reflection on the book itself, but rather on contemporary poetry-prize culture. As well as putting enormous pressure on new writers, accolades like these perpetuate the double-bind of canon-building whereby what is ‘like Heaney’ is equated with ‘as good as Heaney’ and, as such, ‘good’.